Hello! I'm Dr. Dante Shepherd, creator the webcomic Surviving the World (the chalkboard guy in the labcoat) and chemical engineering professor. AMA!
Jun 6th 2014 by DanteShepherd • 55 Questions • 1792 Points
Hello all! I'm Dante Shepherd, and you probably know me from Surviving the World, the daily chalkboard photocomic in which I wear a labcoat and pretend to be a bloviating professor, that I've been making for the past six years. I also write another weekly webcomic called PhD Unknown with artist Joan Cooke, and make extra comics for Medium, too.
I'm also an actual (slightly-less bloviating) chemical engineering professor doing engineering education research to make STEM modules for K-12 classrooms across the country. I'm hoping long-term to be able to make science and engineering comics to help students understand and enjoy science in new ways, too.
I'll be hanging around for a while, so feel free to ask me about STW, comics, engineering, science, velociraptors, how insane you have to be to willingly try to get a PhD, or whatever else you'd like!
EDIT: Okay, friends, I enjoyed this time we had together. And it's not you, it's me. But we should see other people. I'm just so busy these days. I need some space, and I can't give you what you need. If more questions trickle in, I'll swing back to answer them, but otherwise, I hope everyone has a good weekend, and I hope you continue to enjoy STW and the other comics I make. Please consider supporting my Patreon (http://www.patreon.com/danteshepherd) so I can support artists and make science comics. Thanks, everyone!
Does it ever get uncomfortable when students discover or already know who you are because of STW?
It can be uncomfortable if they try to address me on a first name basis, yeah. It's certainly helped my relationship with students, though, even if they did find the comic of me in a woman's slip.
I'm currently a PhD student teaching a class, and I could use your advice and opinion: I try to be as lenient and open/accessible for the students as possible (since I figure the material itself is already hard enough, no sense in me being hard on them as well).... including letting them call me by first name and/or even having a beer with them on occasion if I meet them at the pub. As far as I can tell, class works well regardless, and people actually put a lot of time and effort in their homework. But I'm afraid of them (or: at least some of the less-motivated students) eventually not respecting me and then falling behind in class... Am I setting myself up for failure?
Also: Apart from the first-name thing, how do you make sure your students respect you as a teacher?
I think you're probably okay - the fact that you are a PhD student and not an official professor allows you a little more leeway in terms of casual atmosphere. Trying to meet up with them outside the classroom isn't always the best plan, but can be fine if it's managed well enough and you're making sure to handle the situation appropriately. The more connected you are with them, the more dedicated to the class they will be. So I think you're okay! And this is all a part of learning how to teach well, anyway.
The other main way to make sure they respect you is to lay down the law if you have to. I get stern and serious when it's called for, and that stark difference between using a lot of humor definitely wakes them up and gets them to focus when it's called for.
Best of luck to you!
Some of my best professors for undergrad were the ones who were comfortable and casual enough to use their first name. Hell, my calculus professor, the chair of the math department, had us call him Greg.
I agree that a casual atmosphere can really help students learn and appreciate the course. On the other hand, I already run a pretty casual and open class, so letting students address me by the first name wouldn't really contribute anything further. Some professors, it might be the best option for them, to be honest - but based on my age difference from the students only being about 10 years, and some people on campus mistaking me for an undergraduate, I really need that formality to make sure students allow me to run the class.
It's also partly that I teach some laboratory courses, too, and maintaining the proper safety in there is utterly important. By making sure students have the proper formality, it helps make sure they remember when they need to be serious so no one gets hurt.
Hi I've been a really big fan of yours ever since my early stumbleupon days (stumble stumble stumble meh) anyway in an 'existential...esque' sort of way how long do you see yourself doing STW.
That's a good question! I honestly don't know. I used to desperately NEED to make the comic every day, mainly because I wasn't happy with my job at the time, either as a grad student or a post-doc. Once I became a professor, though, and got to teach every day, then I suddenly didn't feel the need to continue doing it but have kept it going because it's fun. It's getting harder to make, certainly.
So I guess I don't know? Hopefully for a while moving forward, since people seem to like it and I still enjoy making it?
What are you going to do with all of the extra chalkboards that you salvaged from the school?
Those are some tremendously beautiful pieces of slate I found in the warehouse. Whoever is deciding that we should replace blackboards with whiteboards is an idiot.
If I was still in college, I'd say they make excellent beer pong tables I MEAN EXCELLENT DESK SPACE
Randall Munroe of xkcd has a known aversion towards velociraptors, while you seem to be a huge fan (sorry, it was relevant). Are you guys friends, and if so, how has this affected your friendship?
I've never met Randall, unfortunately! But considering raptors are very, very dead, I don't think it's really anything to worry about.
Hello, Dante! I am actually a chemical engineer who is going to be going back to school to get my Ph.D. in material science and hopefully end up teaching. Do you have any advice for me or things you wish you had known when you started your path? Also, super hydrophobic coatings are pretty neat.
If you're going back to get your PhD, make sure you can be patient and focused on the end goal. Because you're essentially signing up for several years of indentured servitude, where you have no control over the end date, it can get really frustrating along the way. So remind yourself why you're doing it and keep working toward that end goal.
If you want to get a job as a professor, even if your goal is to teach, you're going to need to make sure you've got the publications to your name to be able to get in the door. I've only got three, so I had to get really lucky with some fortunate timing and incidental networking to get my position. A lot of the candidates that we've interviewed for positions lately have all had nearly 20 publications. Some were second authorships, but the point still remains.
Superhydrophobicity IS really cool! I don't get to make those surfaces often enough anymore.
What are your top five StW that you've done?
P.s. I miss the live streams!
P.p.s. it's my birthday so A+ choice on doing your AMA this fine day.
The top five? Man. Off the top of my head:
Any from the creeping people out series
And usually science ones or ones where I purposely pose like an idiot, like this one
I sacrifice a live goat to the god of the board every night.
I always feel like I'm missing part of the joke when I see "200-proof coffee". Alcohol? But that isn't coffee. Caffeine? But that's not a pick-me-up, that's a kill-me-immediately. Am I just being dense?
How many scoops of grinds to cups of water do you use? Do you use water at all? That might be the issue here. Cup-o'-grinds, ain't nothing better! Besides everything.
You've used the phrase "If you can't make fun of it, it's probably not worth taking seriously."
How do you know when to draw the line and invoke that "probably?" For a long time I really liked that saying but didn't think too deeply about it. The thing that actually made me think was the marathon bombing last year. Especially with your connections to Boston, I wondered how you would feel about making a joke about it, and kind of figured you wouldn't go that far for a laugh. Then of course there are jokes about rape and race and all sorts of things that people claim to take seriously, yet make jokes about.
So how do you decide that something shouldn't be made fun of, yet should still be taken seriously? And if you're making this possibly arbitrary decision about something, do you feel like it detracts from the meaning of the phrase?
I think you need to ask yourself who the joke is serving. Some people who make fun of things are the people who will NEVER take them seriously. So like with rape jokes - who does it serve? Are you strengthening the perspective of how horrible rape is? Are you presenting it in a way that helps or comforts victims of rape? Or are you just saying it because you think you have freedom of speech? You can say or make fun of anything you want, but that doesn't mean you're not an asshole.
There is no real line between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. But there is the purpose behind making fun of something, and that's the important point. If you're doing it to lift up people and encourage them and help them, then you're doing so in a way that helps. It's difficult, though.
Dante, I've been following your comic for a while and have to ask. What makes you like using a chalkboard more than using a whiteboard?
Chalkboards are easier to work with, and if I want to quickly erase something, I can use my hand. If I'm teaching on a whiteboard, and quickly erase with my hand, my hand gets colored, and then if I scratch my face, it suddenly looks like I'm teaching while wearing war paint and that's highly insensitive! Not to mention weird.
Also, the aesthetics of the white writing on a clean pristine black background? Isn't that nicer?
I also keep accidentally buying the scented whiteboard markers and good God but do they stink up the classroom with their fumes
Congrats on the recent 6 year milestone. How do you develop so much content (8 comics per week!) in such a short span of time (daily)?
On a far more important note, what is your favorite raptor to do impressions of? Is there one you've yet to do that you really want to?
It's closer to 10 comics a week if you count the two STW I do for Medium, actually - so it's tough. There are definitely some days I'm scrambling for weird facts that I can play off of. The better and easier days are when I'm talking with other people and having conversations, because some comment will usually launch some idea to mind that I can use. Otherwise, if I'm just home all day, all I can think about is comics about cats and coffee and that would probably be a pretty successful internet comic now that I think about it.
My favorite raptor impression I've done was when someone asked me to do a raptor as the pope. I think the video for that got lost.
Doing all of Romeo and Juliet as a raptor was tough. (starts at 2:04)
What made you decide on chemical engineering? Sorry for lame question, I'm a biochem undergrad and I love to hear anything about chemistry from people who have made it their life's work.
I liked chemistry and I liked math. I thought there would be more chemistry than there is. That was all I really knew when I made the choice.
Your page-a-day calendar has been a wonderful addition to my desk at work. So, thank you for making that! The daily holiday has sparked some fun conversations.
Unrelated to calendars, I'm looking for some new books to read. Do you have any favorites that you recommend? (I would prefer that they not be textbooks. :) I see those often enough in my daily work!)
My favorite book of all time is "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys". A really good coming-of-age book. As for actual books, it really depends what you're interested in? Jasper Fforde and Christopher Moore are both good reads, as is Nelson DeMille . . .
Thank you for the support!
Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized Velociraptors or 100 Velociraptor-sized ducks?
Velociraptors were the size of chickens, anyway, right? So wouldn't the choice be between to fight equally sized creatures, yet one is a ferocious terror and one is a duck?
Hey Dante, love the comic!
I have nothing to do this weekend and the current plan is to sit on my ass and play video games. Any suggestion on something I could do to better myself instead?
Do you have a croquet set? Do you have friends? Is there a mall nearby where you can play croquet indoors?
Heya, Commander Shepard! Just taking the opportunity to say that I love your comic/chalkboard antics! How is Cannonball doing?
She is really into choo-choos right now and loves the color yellow. Who loves the color yellow? I don't know anyone who loves the color yellow.
Why are your eyes always red? Do you wear contacts, or are you high nearly constantly?
I have to wear hard contact lenses. I can't wear soft lenses because of an astigmatism with my eyes. And hard lenses really suck.
I'm not high constantly, mainly because I don't have access to the infinite amount of drugs that would be necessary to maintain my eyes at this level of redness permanently.
Kudos on your K-12 education research! Why do you think that less than 20% of engineering students are female? What can be done during K-12 to increase these #'s?
I think there needs to be more outreach done specifically by the women who are already in engineering to help break the stereotype of the white male in the labcoat being the first thing that comes to mind when people think of scientists. Beyond that, helping students overcome their fear of math is of the utmost importance, as it certainly affects all students but some studies have shown that it affects young girls more.
Dr, where can I get a nice long lab coat like yours?
I'm always making model rockets with my kid, and I feel like I need an authentic "scientist" touch so all the other parents are afraid of me when we're at the park launching.
You can steal one from a laboratory like I did.
There's also several sites online that sell labcoats! When I was looking into getting some to get them embroidered with the STW logo, I came across several that advertised 'nude fit'. 'NUDE FIT'. Who wants to wear a nude fit labcoat?
What is your best advice for a chem e undergrad?
How can a student at a research oriented institute help promote quality of teaching?
Find people who you can work with. No engineer actually does anything on his/her own, so you're an idiot if you try to complete everything solo. Work with friends and classmates and you'll not only do better but have an easier go of it.
Be honest in your student evaluations - professors do read these and do try to improve based on them. Beyond that, some research-focused institute just don't care, and it's hard to make changes when there's not anyone looking to try to change things.
A little off topic, my last name is same as yours and spelled the same, so how often does your name get spelled correctly? I cant remember the last time someone got it right the first time. I have 7 different little league trophies and none spelled it right.
I get 'Sheperd' a lot. And 'Shepperd'. I think some people just can't spell.
I'm never stoned although sometimes I do rock.
I did not expect you to be an engineer. I have seen your pictures shared over the social media. It was awesome. Speaks the truth.
Cliche question: What made you create Survivng the Worls?
A need to distract myself in grad school? STW actually came out of another project I was trying to put together, a script for a television show idea I had about life in college. The set-up for the show focused on a professor teaching at a local YMCA, offering distinct lessons about how to survive and prepare for life at college. Each episode would be half centered around this professor teaching this class, and half around the lives and interactions of college students who the professor was using as class examples. I’d been writing short stories, plays and scripts for years, and rarely ever finished one, but I spent several years putting this script and proposal together, and really liked what came out of it.
I showed the script (which I was calling 101) to a few friends who liked it, and sent it to some contest, where it was basically ignored, or misunderstood, or wasn’t liked. But it was the first real long script I’d ever finished, and I wanted to make sure more than ten people saw it. I almost rewrote it as a one-act play, but then tried asking around on the Internet to see if anyone would be willing to draw it as an off-beat comic book. When the only responses I got were from people who drew worse stick-figures than I could put together, I moved in the webcomic direction. Since I can’t draw and really wanted a unique style, I went with the photocomic and blackboard format.
The name 101 was already taken on the blogging site that the webcomic was first hosted on, so I ended up renaming the project Surviving the World. Most of the college-related comics in the first 100 lessons are cannibalized straight from the original script, so at least they live on in some regard.